SRB Recovery Ships Oral
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida – 10 April 2012
Today is April 10th, 2012. This oral history is being conducted with
Manny De Leon for the SRB [solid rocket booster] Recovery Ships Oral
History Project. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright, assisted by Jennifer
Ross-Nazzal. We are here at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station [CCAFS]
in Hangar AF in Florida. If you would, just give us a brief overview
of how you became involved with the space operations and then how
you became part of the SRB recovery ship operation.
De Leon: I went back to school at Embry-Riddle University in Daytona
Beach [Florida]. When I was graduating, Thiokol Corporation [Morton
Thiokol, Inc.] came up, did interviews, and hired me. I actually had
been in Florida for all of the first ten Shuttle launches. I either
drove down, or we would rent a plane, fly down and be over the river,
over the land, and watch the launches that way. Then I hired on after
STS-10 and was working here doing external tank engineering for STS-11.
STS-11 through 51-L [the Challenger accident] I was working in the
VAB [Vehicle Assembly Building] and at Vandenberg [Air Force Base,
California]. Doing external tank engineering in the VAB, and then
for Vandenberg we were activating the launch site for West Coast Shuttle
launches, which of course never happened because when Challenger happened
they abandoned West Coast operations. Retrieval operations needed
engineering to continue so they borrowed some engineers, including
me. I came to marine operations at that time and have been here ever
What were some of the first things that you started working on when
you walked into this operation?
De Leon: In this operation most of the [Kennedy] Space Center [Florida]
was concentrating on redesigning flight hardware, and nobody was working
on the GSE [ground support equipment] processes for it. [NASA] Marshall
Space Flight [Center, Huntsville, Alabama] was doing a lot of it,
but there was a lot that was falling through the cracks. My boss saw
a need, and we started working on, specifically, assembly GSE for
the solid rocket boosters. We designed and built some new equipment
to do just that, because in the past when they stacked SRBs it was
hit-and-miss. I don’t know how familiar you are with SRB assembly,
but there’s an instrumented aft skirt. On top of that there
are four segments that join together. They are hermetically sealed;
they actually make one huge 1,000 psi [pounds per square inch] pressure
vessel. Then there’s an instrumented section on top and parachutes
on top of that.
Well, the four segments that go together weigh in excess of 250,000
pounds, and they fit together in tolerances of tens of thousandths
of an inch. So the fit is difficult and critical. It used to be it
wasn’t really a well thought out process. Before Challenger
it was a lot of work to get them together. That’s what my particular
set of projects concentrated on, figuring out, characterizing how
to make them fit better. We spent a lot of time and effort making
new hardware to do that. After return to flight [STS-26, first launch
after Challenger], we went back to our duty of SRB retrieval and handed
over the GSE stuff to the folks that do GSE, but they continued to
use our equipment till the end of the program.
Can you give some examples of some of the new equipment?
De Leon: My particular project was called a sine bar. It was actually
with some consultants, specifically Walt Whippo in Cocoa Beach here.
He did the conceptual part of it and then we implemented it with him.
It’s a very accurate—you determine the shape of this twelve-foot
diameter booster to within a few thousandths of an inch by measuring
an arc that’s thirty inches across. You know in a perfect 12-foot
diameter circle—144-point-something actually according to the
drawing—in this 30-inch arc what the three points that define
an arc would be. So you measure very accurately and then you measure
the next thirty inches. You go all the way around the booster, and
you mathematically tie those together and then generate a shape.
You do that for the top of the segment that you’re going to
stack on and you do it for the bottom of the other segment. You figure
out where the match is and most of the time where it isn’t.
When they fill SRB rocket segments they do it vertically. It’s
a huge 250,000 pounds of propellant pour. And the cure is not completed
in the vertical, they actually cure it on its side. They call it a
bread loaf effect. It takes a shape because the propellant finishes
curing on its side. It takes a shape that isn’t round, and it’s
sufficiently so that we tried different tools. We ended up with what
is basically a funnel, a huge strong funnel that we attached to the
bottom segment, and dropped the top segment on top of it.
They used to lift the booster at two points, and although it’s
a very slight deflection, it would cause the booster to change shape.
So we started picking it up at four points and then varying the load
to try and match the shapes as close as possible. Then you could shoehorn
them together. Rick [Richard P.] Tubridy was part of the group of
people that designed the set of shaping tools, things to try and force
it to be to the right shape just before you join it together, and
what they call the FJAF, the flight joint assembly fixture, to shoehorn
them together. That was the biggest project I worked on during that
I also did a bunch of computer work for different assembly aids. One
of the things we didn’t know—nobody had ever characterized
what the events were during a field joint mate. There’s an interference
fit, and there’s three O-rings in there. When the joint comes
together, nobody had ever actually taken a really close look at that
process. The reason they made it a priority was because as some of
those O-rings went in you would damage them. So we created some measuring
equipment that very accurately measured the vertical displacement
of the relative position of the joints as it was being mated, measured
forces on the crane as it was coming down, and figured out what all
the processes were as they were being mated. It was good work; it
Very interesting. How did your role change after those issues were
addressed and into return to flight?
De Leon: Once we did return to flight, we tried to keep doing different
work with the sine bar, since it measured a large circle. We actually
went and did a job for the [U.S.] Navy at the Kittery Shipyard [Portsmouth
Naval Shipyard, Maine]. They have issues with submarines that are
very large cylinders, and they had us measure one that they were having
some issues with.
Outside of that, we stopped doing non-Shuttle engineering. After we
came back to return to flight and we started having a reasonable flight
rate, we didn’t have a lot of time for anything else. Booster
retrieval, disassembly, and refurb [refurbishment] was our reason
for being here, and we just did that. In this facility we have the
ships, we have all the people that man the ships. We’d go out
before the launch, wait for the launch, bring the boosters back, disassemble
them here in house.
On the other side of the hangar we have a facility where we would
refurb parts of it. Parts of the pressure vessel, once we disassemble
them and inspect them, would go back to Utah where Thiokol Corporation—nowadays
it’s ATK [Alliant Techsystems, Inc.]—refurbished them.
Everything else—the aft skirt, the instrumentation, the thrust
vector control system, the parachutes—was refurbed here on the
Space Center. Since we never developed a good fair use specification
we always took everything back to bare metal as if it had just been
built. Inspected it, and if it passed, then started priming, painting,
reassembling, working towards a new launch. Most of that was done
here on the Space Center, a lot of it here on the Hangar AF complex.
You mentioned that prior to Challenger you were working at the VAB,
and now you were here. What was your role, and how was your role defined
after the return to flight? What exactly were you starting to do?
You mentioned you were a diver, so they were glad to have had you.
De Leon: Yes, that’s the reason they kept me here at the hangar.
As an External Tank engineer I was a process engineer. I prepared
the External Tanks for flight and dealt with problems in that process.
We started doing validation for the tank facilities at Vandenberg.
Then Challenger happened, and I came down here to the hangar. My title
is engineer primarily, diver is a sideline. All of our divers, all
of our retrieval personnel that aren’t ship’s crew—and
ship’s crew is a very well-defined group, because you have to
have a Coast Guard certification to do this—the rest of us who
went to sea to do booster retrieval were considered retrieval crew,
not ship’s crew. There were only three that were full-time divers.
When we weren’t doing Shuttle launches, they were doing maintenance
of the dive equipment, the recompression chambers, the small boats
that we use offshore. The rest of us would go back to our primary
job, in my case engineer. We had welders, we had technicians, we have
safety engineers from across the [Banana] River. We say ‘across
the river’ to distinguish between workers on KSC proper and
we Shuttle workers who are on CCAFS, where hangar AF is.
My primary engineering duty was dealing with disassembly of the boosters.
When we received boosters back from a launch we started the process
of taking them apart and setting them up for Thiokol and NASA personnel
from here, from Marshall primarily, but also from Houston [NASA Johnson
Space Center, Texas] to do some postflight performance assessment.
I would deal with all the ground support equipment, was involved in
setting them up for that. Then once they got done with the assessment,
start the refurb process.
Can you share with us some of the changes or the evolution in the
processes of when you first started in that role to, as we closed
out the Shuttle program how that might have changed or improved? Or
some of the things that you tried that didn’t work as well as
you had hoped?
De Leon: Well, the process has been very similar from the start because
the hardware hasn’t changed a lot. Before my time here they
made a big change due to SRB redesign driven by the Challenger incident.
When we recover the boosters there’s 200,000 pounds of booster
in the water, and they float vertically. We can’t really bring
them back, something that big, towing it vertically. So we have to
cause it to float and lay down in what we call log mode. The way you
do that is you shove a plug up in the bottom end, push air in that
forces the water out, and then it’ll rise up and lay down in
Originally, just before I came to the hangar, they were trying very
hard to do this with an ROV, a remotely operated vehicle. It was a
plug that had motors and cameras built into it. They were going to
basically, from the ship, drive this plug down up underneath the booster
and shove it up in the booster. That never really worked well. We
ended up having to come up with an alternate means, until they basically
gave up on it and started doing a manual-type plug. The same function,
just a lot smaller, because it was powered by divers.
We’ve made small changes to that ever since, but again the basic
function is still the same. You have to plug the booster, you have
to dewater the booster, you have to tow it back, you have to recover
the parachutes. Parachute recovery has changed. Before Challenger,
we used to separate parachutes by hand. When the booster splashes
down you have the booster floating in the water, and these 115-foot
diameter parachutes, three of them, hanging off of it. It used to
be a manual operation where you would physically separate the parachutes
from the booster. I think there’s 36 connections, and they’re
just below the water level. So when the weather was bad, when there
were seas, it was a very difficult, time-consuming operation for divers.
You have to hang on with one hand, uncover this connector, and with
one hand do a two-handed operation where you push a thumb set, slide
a cap, and then pull the connector apart.
In fact I think Challenger was when they were going to try and fly
the first automatic disconnect. On the forward deck of the forward
skirt they had a system where, as the booster hit the water, the parachutes
would be separated. They had a pyrotechnic nut on each of the six
connections on the top deck of the forward skirt that they would pyrotechnically
sever. There was still some load on the parachutes, so the parachutes
would just pop off and separate and float so we could get them separately.
That was a big change.
STS-63 they figured out that was a real problem in high crosswind
splashdowns. The booster would be coming in with good horizontal speed,
and if you had a high wave, the booster would hit the top of the wave.
It would trip the booster, so it would start to fall, but at the same
time the sensors would think that it had already splashed down so
it would let go of the parachutes. You’d have this tremendous
weight impacting on the water, and we lost that set of booster hardware.
Those two boosters, most of them were ruined, not reusable.
So they came up with a new method of doing it whereby the parachutes
don’t completely separate, they just go on longer tethers. The
divers then still have to separate it, but we don’t have to
actually do a connector. We could tie to the parachutes and cut them.
We’ve improved lots of small things about the process, but those
are the major things, that and being able to do underwater photo and
video. That was never a priority for some of our local management;
they didn’t like that.
Let’s talk about that, because that hadn’t had a record
before you came. How were you involved, and how has that technology
changed to allow you to do more documentation?
De Leon: Before I came down we had some limited—but because the
technology wasn’t there, the cameras were huge and bulky, and
that interfered with the dive operation itself. Our local management
didn’t put a priority on it. A fellow named Wulf Eckroth used
to do that, and then he left the company, and I started. I picked
up where he left off and had the good fortune that we changed management,
and they were very willing to allow us to take photos, take videos,
make a visual record of it. Since then, as technology has gotten better
the cameras get better. You can do photo, you can do video, and you
can do it with a minimal interference with the job.
Can you walk us through either a mission that you remember or just
the process of how you train someone as part of the dive team to record
this documentation? I understand sometimes you immediately use it
when you’re back on the ship. Just to give us an idea of how
that whole process works and how valuable it is to training and for
De Leon: The dive team has been very stable. We have folks that have
been here almost since the start of the program. There was actually
very little turnover for the retrieval team, because it’s good
work. We enjoy going offshore and doing this. Everybody who’s
here does it because they want to. It’s not just a job; it’s
something we want to do. So training actually, the first group learned
by doing it. There wasn’t anybody around to learn from. For
those of us who have come since, we joined the group in small numbers
so there were a lot of people around to help out the new guys. You
go out, and you talk about what you’re going to do. They give
you a job. You go work it. You have enough people around that are
doing their job and keeping an eye on you, making sure that you’re
getting yours done. As you do this a few times, you go offshore, you
do your work, you are part of the group. It’s an OJT [on-the-job
training] program really, because there really aren’t a lot
of ways you can train to recover a 200,000-pound object offshore.
There aren’t any.
Is there a minimal amount of time that you have to put in certain
training procedures before you’re actually used in a mission?
De Leon: Yes, absolutely. To join the group of divers you have to be
at least a certified scuba diver, advanced scuba diver. That’s
the most basic requirement, and you have to have logged thirty dives,
a fair number of dives. You can’t just have gotten your cert
[certification] and expect to come do this work, because scuba is
really just an operational aspect that gets you to the job. So if
you’re not really familiar with what you’re doing underwater,
your concentration is going to be there rather than on your job. There’s
a minimum experience level.
After that, of course you start training. We have a physical fitness
test that you have to do every quarter. You have to pass that. You
have to dive with the group. We used to do more training dives, but
unfortunately we’re not doing enough of that. You would have
to go out on a certain number of training missions. We do go inland
to blue holes, to freshwater dives to practice. You have to do a certain
number of those, and three deep dives with the group before you would
actually be able to go offshore and do the booster retrieval. Then
when you’re at booster retrieval you get the least complicated
work, which is pushing the DOP [diver-operated plug]. Physically it’s
a lot of work, you just hold on and swim. The installation of the
DOP is not difficult, but you have to be aware of what’s going
on inside the booster. You have to watch that the plug seats before
you latch it. Then there’s a process to seal the connection
and attach the air hose.
So for somebody who’s just getting started, there’s a
job that requires you to be there and then gives you the opportunity
to watch and see what’s going on. And it’s also an evaluation.
We’ve had divers that came out and ended up not being able to
do the work because just it was an overload for them once they were
It certainly is a different type of activity than a scuba diver would
do, because you’re actually doing work.
De Leon: Yes, the scuba is just a means to get to your work, yes.
How many divers are on a retrieval team?
De Leon: Typically we take out eight divers. We’re all retrieval
crew and divers. We try and break that up. The underwater work takes
anything from twenty to thirty minutes of work underwater. The first
part is the hardest, installation of the plug. Depending on the weather
we will send typically four people to do that and hold the rest of
the work for the last four. If there’s bad weather, if the booster
is surging, if you have issues with the nozzle—every splashdown
is different—the nozzles get torn up. If there’s problems
installing the DOP on the first dive, you have a second team that
can do that. We’re limited by Coast Guard regulation to no decompression
dives, so we have a limited amount of time underwater. We have basically
the two dive teams to do the work, and if we don’t get it done
then we have to wait a day till all the divers are fresh again.
Has that happened on occasion?
De Leon: Yes.
Can you give us any examples?
De Leon: I don’t remember the exact mission, but there was one
where the seas were such that the booster surge was tremendous. The
thing weighs 200,000 pounds, but it’s still just floating in
the water. You have this object that’s going up and down in
the waves, and because of its mass, if the waves are the right period
and intensity, it creates a situation where it reinforces the motion
of the booster. The booster will go up and the wave will drop out
from it, and then the booster will fall. Of course 200,000 pounds,
the mass, it doesn’t just go back to where it started, it goes
beyond there. If you have the right sympathetic situation, the wave
rise again gives the booster more flotation, so it goes farther.
We’ve seen 15 feet of the booster going up and down. It isn’t
real fast, but it’s irresistible. Like I said, the first thing
you do is push the plug down. The plug weighs 1,600 pounds. You can’t
get between it and the booster, or you will be hurt, so you have to
swim the plug down with the booster going up and down. On top of which,
the booster out of the water acts like a sail. If you have a lot of
wind, in addition to the wrong conditions in the waves, the booster
will travel because of the sail. And as it’s high, the wind
can push it so it’ll actually also have a kick. It’s doing
up-and-down and side-to-side motion.
You’re trying to push this 1,600-pound object down the side
of this moving booster. When you get underneath it, you have to hit
the nozzle hole. You show up down there with the plug and all of a
sudden the nozzle just picks up and goes over there ten feet. You
go after it over there, and now it’s over here. Now it’s
up and now it’s down. We’ve had occasions where you just
expend the divers. You’re not only swimming down, you have to
swim to keep up with the booster as it’s traveling. You get
to the bottom, and you chase it around to the point where you run
out of time. So you leave the DOP and let the next team try it, and
we’ve done that. I recall one launch where we couldn’t
get the DOP in and the weather got worse, so we just called the operations
and we waited for a day. The weather got worse, and we waited for
another day. Then the weather cooperated, and we could get the plug
in. We did the job and came home.
That was unusual thankfully, but there were several occasions where
you get the DOP down in there and for whatever reason couldn’t
get it seated. Once you push the air in and you have the booster laid
over, you have a check valve in the hole where the water comes out.
We put a check valve in the hole where the air goes in just to make
sure that once you disconnect it’s not a path for water. Well,
the check valve broke. So we got the plug in, we have the booster,
we’re pumping air to it, and nothing’s happening.
We had to physically go back down to the bottom of the booster, extract
that plug—having planned for such possibilities; we carry a
spare onboard—take the spare and put it in and then do the rest
of the retrieval. It’s always something; very few trips went
without some issue. Like I said, the first operation separating the
parachutes, there was always issues with the parachutes tangling with
the booster. Usually it would only take a few minutes to separate
them. Sometimes the parachutes would be tangled with themselves once
you got them off the booster, and it was very often that we would
have two parachutes tangled up on deck come up together. Occasionally
we’d have all three parachutes in one big ball. It was never
one trip that was the same as any other.
You just train the best you can.
De Leon: Yes, you deal with it as it came, because that’s all you
When issues would come up, how was the communication between the divers
and the people making the decisions? Explain that process, using that
scenario that you just talked about. Things changed, so you had to
go back and rethink, and go back and redo.
De Leon: Well, before every operation we generally categorize them as
hazardous operations. Anything that has a hazard or risk to the people
or the hardware, we’ll have a pretask briefing. We do our pretask
before the trip, before the mission, the specific job. But once the
divers get in the water, there really isn’t any communication.
It’s just us doing the job, and you deal with the problems that
come up as best you can. If you can’t, then every individual
has the opportunity to call a timeout and just say, “No, I don’t
think this is going right. There’s a risk to person or hardware,”
and we all have to respect that call and just stop and regroup.
We’ve had very few occasions where that happened. We usually
would attack a problem and figure out that we weren’t going
to overcome it, so we would go back to the surface and we would have
another pretask. If we knew what was going wrong, we could figure
out how to deal with it, or at least the next thing we were going
to try. Then the next team of divers—or if the problem was on
the surface, if the problem was with a parachute, that group would
go do it. But during the actual operations there’s not a lot
of coordination that you can do with the divers underwater.
We do have an underwater communications system, but it’s cumbersome
so we give it to the safety diver. There’s one diver whose only
job is to watch out for everybody else. He doesn’t have a physical
work job, he is just there to make sure that nobody gets in a pinch.
If somebody does get caught by something, there’s somebody that
sees it and can start to do something about it. He is typically the
one that wears the com [communications] unit, and he can talk to the
ship, relay, “We’re at the aft skirt, we’re installing
the plug, we’ve got the air hose connected.”
Thankfully there were very few occasions when he had to call up and
say we have a problem. One time he actually had to call and say we’ve
lost a diver. One of the divers had to abort. On the way down he couldn’t
clear his sinuses so he had to go back to the surface. We also have
what we call a standby diver, somebody that can jump in the water
if we have a circumstance where a diver has to abort and can’t
finish the job, or if something should happen and you need an extra
set of hands. On that one occasion—and that’s the only
time I can ever remember that it happened—the safety diver called
up and said we had a diver abort, and they sent the standby diver
in after the other diver came to the surface. He was all right, just
sinus squeeze is something that happens.
Once you’re underwater, the team has to know what they’re
doing and be able to communicate with each other and attack a problem,
because we’re on our own.
In the team of four you said that one was the safety. Is one a lead?
De Leon: Well, the lead is nominal. You have certain tasks that have
to happen, and anybody can do them, but somebody has to decide who’s
going to. We take turns, “For this dive you’re going to
be the lead.” That person says, “You’re going to
hold on to the float ball.” As you push down the diver-operated
plug, it’s got a flexible hose on the end of it so that when
the booster is in the horizontal that hose has a weight on the end.
We call it a catcher’s mitt; it’s a metal grate. That
hose is pulled down by gravity, so it seeks the same place as the
water is. You draw as much water out of the booster as you can.
In order to keep it out of the way, we have a float ball attached
to it. Somebody has to, when you get to the aft skirt, take that float
ball and force it up into the nozzle. Somebody has to, after you’ve
done all the pushing, get up under the plug and blow air to make it
go up. Somebody has to drop the legs on the DOP to seat the DOP in
place; somebody has to inflate the seal bag. Tasks that have to happen.
The lead, what he does is he assigns somebody. One person could do
it all once the plug is there, but it’s easier and more reliable
to break up the tasks. That allows one person to be doing it and a
couple other people to be watching, in addition to their tasks. Everybody’s
workload goes down, so you can do your job and be a backup for everything
else that has to happen. The lead and the two working divers—or
if the weather is bad you’ll have three working divers, if the
weather is really nice you can have just one other working diver.
The lead is a nominal position. You make the decision beforehand,
but when you get there, everybody knows what they’re supposed
to be doing. You can be doing it and watching and making sure everybody
else is okay and that they’re doing what they’re supposed
to be doing.
The teams of four, do they train together or do you mix?
De Leon: Yes, everybody [mixes].
Do the boats have specific divers that work one ship compared to the
De Leon: No. The captain and the first mate and the cook were pretty
much always with the ship, and a lot of the crew would stay with the
ship, just ended up that way. Most of the ship’s crew and the
retrieval crew, we just went where we were told. We deliberately mixed
it up so that everybody can work together. We don’t have one
group start doing something different and then you get somebody else
[to] join them and now you don’t know exactly what’s going
on. You make the whole process transparent to everybody else. Everybody
knows what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it. We have
the same expectation from each of the groups.
Tell us how the photography mixed into this process.
De Leon: Well, it used to be a sideline. Wulf and I would take cameras
down, and when we weren’t in the middle of doing something else
we would take pictures. Occasionally they would actually allow us
to take the video camera. As we got farther into the program the postflight
assessment folks wanted some of that video and pictures, so we started
doing a specific dive before the retrieval dives that were video and
photo assessment. They didn’t use them often, but occasionally.
You’d have the boosters here in the building and they would
see a ding, a loss of paint, a bent piece of metal. They’d use
our photos and videos to try and get an idea of when that happened.
If it was something that we did to it during the recovery process,
if it was something that was done at splashdown, or the real concern
was if it was something that happened during flight.
How did your group use the photo and the video documentation that
you were starting to accumulate?
De Leon: Not a lot, not for work. The nice thing is that being at sea,
being with the ships, being on the water is very photogenic. So most
of the use there was just because “I’m in the picture,”
me and the booster. We archive it, we have kept it for reference,
and occasionally we use different shots when we’re trying to
describe something to somebody. If we have a new vendor for a new
part that’s going to go on a ship or for recovery, we did have
to talk to new vendors because the whole Shuttle system was designed
in the’70s and built in the ’80s. A lot of the ship’s
systems, a lot of the hardware we were using, we kept using past the
time that anybody else in the world was using it. We’d have
a piece that would break and nobody in the world made it anymore,
so we’d have to find something to substitute for it. We’d
take our videos or pictures to somebody and say, “This is what
we used to do. We need a product from you that does something similar.”
The other use is the biggest use. We used to go do lectures—schools,
dive clubs, universities, the Propeller Club in the Port [Canaveral,
Florida]—pretty much anybody who wanted us would ask for a diver
to come out and talk about the process. So we’d have a set of
pictures of the launch, of the dive, of the different things that
happened on the ship as part of a PowerPoint presentation.
Were there processes and/or technology that you developed that is
being applied in the commercial world or industry? Or that maybe you
De Leon: No, not really. We have adapted a lot of industry equipment
to do what we were doing. We have not actually developed a lot, because
our application is unique, there’s nobody else doing this. The
Ariane [rocket] folks asked us for a little expertise when they were
starting to launch their program. Actually it was NASA folks who were
asked by Ariane to cooperate. They talked to us about what we did
and how we did it, and they ended up doing their own thing using Russian
divers once they got boosters back. Their first problem was they weren’t
getting boosters back.
What are some of the other modifications or changes that were made
to the ships that impacted operations? We’ve got a GPS [global
positioning system] that works well. How did that assist in what you
were doing as part of your normal operation?
De Leon: Improved technology improved the operation. Originally the ships
themselves, the hulls, keels were laid about the same time as the
first launch. The first launches were recovered using the vessel called
the Bering Seal. It was a vessel of opportunity, but the ships have
been the same ever since. They were built to do this, and very little
modification done to the actual vessels. We did install flume tanks.
The ships are shallow-draft because they have to come up the river,
but for an oceangoing vessel, for stability, what you want is a very
deep-draft vessel. Our girls just aren’t, so you have this ship
that floats like a cork on top of the water, which made them a very
bad place to be in bad weather.
In fact NASA used us for some trials for space sickness. The NASA
doctors figured out that space sickness and seasickness are very similar,
so they wanted to try some new drugs on us. They characterized our
vessels, and it turns out that before the flume tanks, we were the
number two worst vessel to be on for conditions that would cause seasickness.
The one that was worse is the Coast Guard recovery boat. I think she’s
like in the seventy--foot range, the one that you see in the videos
off Alaska where they physically tie themselves in and they can do
barrel rolls on top of the water.
As part of that they decided that maybe the ships needed some improvement,
so they put in some flume tanks, which is basically a tube that runs
across sideways on the ship and has baffles that have a mass of water
in it. So as the ship rolls one way, the water goes with it, and the
baffles keep it from coming to the other side quickly. It damps the
roll of the ship, and it really has helped. It doesn’t eliminate
the roll, but it used to be when you were on the bridge the ship almost
had a snap to it. You would roll from one side, and it would just
jump, just snap back and forth, and it’s dampened that a lot.
Other than that, the technologies have improved communication more
than anything. We go out the day before launch, and it used to be
we had radio. You would communicate from the ship to shore, and you
would try different frequencies. If you didn’t have good communication,
you just didn’t have good communication. Not a lot you could
do about it. When they launched, somebody here would radio a countdown.
Terry [A.] Widdicombe used to sit at the desk and radio the countdown
and we would know they launched. If the weather was good we would
see it. If not, not even bad weather, just overcast, you wouldn’t
know it until you’d hear the booms of the boosters coming in.
We had our radar sets. If the weather was good you could see the boosters
of course, but in bad weather you’d find them on radar once
they pop up. When they first hit the water they lay down, but they’re
still hot. The opening on the pressure vessel is at the back, in the
nozzle, so it burps air, takes on water, and the air, the volume that’s
inside of it, cools. Then they go back vertical. When they’re
horizontal, with our old radars they were very hard to spot. When
they go vertical you’d be able to see them on radar and you’d
be able to know where you were going. Nominally we are seven miles
from the impact point. When you launch, you throw something 140 miles
away. All things being perfect, you know exactly where it’s
going to hit, but nothing’s ever perfect. You have different
densities of air. You have layers with winds going in different directions.
So there’s an error zone, one in ten chance it’s going
to be this far.
The ships, I think there was a one in six million chance of them falling
that far from the projected point of impact. We’re nominally
seven miles from impact, but we’ve been as far as fourteen miles
away and as close as three. When they impact, even if it’s dark
or totally bad weather, you always know they’re almost about
to hit the water because you hear the sonic booms. There’s these
two very loud noises, booms, that come down that are associated with
the boosters about to impact.
When that happens you know they’re out there in the water. You
know you have to go. You know what direction you’re going to
go, but you need things like radar to be able to see them in bad weather
because you don’t know how far you’re going to go. You
don’t want to run into them obviously. Things like GPS make
the job easier, they make things run more smoothly. Nowadays with
satellite TV [television] we actually watch the launch, which was
something we could never do.
Do you remember about what mission that was or what year?
De Leon: STS-85 we were still using radio because it was a bad weather
launch. I remember we had marginal communications, though we could
hear that they launched. It was probably around STS-100 that we got
SATCOM [satellite communications], and it was not long after that
that we had satellite TV.
Were you involved at all when the ships began to bring the ETs [external
tanks] in from [NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans] Louisiana?
De Leon: No, not really. There was no retrieval crew, it’s really
just a minimal ship’s crew. I did some photos and video for
it, but primarily the ship is a shuttle. It drags the tank from Port
Canaveral to Michoud and hands it off at either end to tugs [tug boats].
Although we have plenty of bollard capacity, we can pull; we can’t
really control something that big, especially when you get it in a
channel or near fixed objects.
We need tugs to move the external barge more precisely, so we rented
tugs to bring the barge from the VAB to the port, and then we would
take the tow from there to Michoud. Tugs would line her up, so really
we were just towing. I never made that trip, it was all just ship’s
crew and back then I was just retrieval crew. Nowadays I do have my
Coast Guard cert, but too late to do that.
What other areas would you like for us to know about the operations
that you’ve been involved in, or other aspects that you think
most people don’t know that you take care of?
De Leon: It seems like it’s always a surprise to folks that NASA
has a little navy. I wish we could do more. We have a lot of capacity;
we have a lot of talent. We have a lot of people that can do a lot
of stuff, but we’re constrained. We can’t really go out
in the port and solicit work because we have a very unfair advantage.
There aren’t many ships that are as available as these, and
with effectively a low overhead. We used to do—in fact we still
do Navy jobs and marine fisheries and NOAA work. They basically pay
for the vessels during that time, so they get us cheap. But you can’t
really do that in the real world because that’s very unfair
competition. We can only do it for government customers, other government
agencies, so we have a lot that we can do and that we can’t.
Jennifer, questions you have?
Yes, I had a couple. You said that you can’t really pinpoint
where that solid rocket booster is going to go every time, but is
there a specific region or area where you know we need to head that
De Leon: Yes, it varies for each launch, for each mission. The last launches
we did were all International Space Station so they were all about
130 miles off Jacksonville [Florida]. There’s actually a website
that the postflight assessment folks put together. They have a map
of all the impact points. When Shuttle was going to Mir the azimuth
was lower, so we were still the same distance from the Cape because
a Shuttle launch is going very close to the same orbit. The boosters
have the same power so it’s going to be the same distance from
the Cape, it’s just a different azimuth. The ISS [International
Space Station] were the most northern, then we had the Mir missions.
There were a few Department of Defense missions, satellites the Shuttle
carried up were at a different azimuth. Then there were a few purely
scientific launches where we went due east. There’s a band about
140 miles away from the launch pad. It just depends on exactly where
on orbit they’re going.
Even for an ISS launch it’s a moving target. Our charts show
the window opening. They’re going to land at this spot. And
for every minute, that spot moves over ten miles or so—for five
minutes it’s ten miles. It’s a ten-minute window, and
we have three sites. They shoot for the center, which is the nominal
launch. They let the window open, and in case they have bad weather
they can back up. If they see bad weather coming they can just target
the launch window opening, but they prefer to go for nominal because
that uses up the least energy to get to the Space Station. Then there’s
up to five minutes after that where they can still launch and still
make the intercept with the target on orbit.
So long story short, there’s no one place. They calculate it
for each launch, and they calculate it for each window opening, midwindow
and window closing. We know where that is, they tell us. But there’s
no Xs out on the ocean that we can point at and say that’s where
One thing we haven’t talked about is life on board the ship.
What’s it like? How long are you typically out there? What do
you guys do to pass the time when you’re not getting that SRB?
De Leon: Satellite TV has been a great thing. We go out the day before,
and it used to be we would come back as soon as we got the boosters,
which means we’d be out the day before. We’d have a day
of operations if everything went right, and then we’d be coming
back for a day. So the minimum trip used to be three days. When you
leave the dock, you have to have everything you’re going to
need because we’re 140 miles out. You can’t call Ace Hardware
and have something delivered; you can’t call the pharmacy and
have something delivered. The captain has impounded stores for medications.
We have everything onboard that you’re going to need to do a
recovery, so when you leave the dock you’re ready.
Basically all you’re doing for the first day is traveling to
where you’re going. Those of us who aren’t ship’s
crew and aren’t standing watches—people bring books, used
to be we’d bring videotapes, watch movies. We’d read;
folks would play cards. On the many occasions when we had launch delays,
folks also brought fishing poles. Fishing is something that a lot
of people like to do. It’s always been on a noninterference
basis. If you go out, everything’s ready. There’s nothing
to do for recovery until they actually do a launch, so we’re
sitting on station. They delay a day, folks throw a line over the
side, some of our guys, do it at every opportunity. When they’re
not doing something they’ll throw a line over the side. They
always catch, but very few occasions do they get a lot.
Then there’s some of us that don’t really care about that.
I mean I like fish, I like catching, but the gear and the baiting
and the waiting and the cleaning and everything else, I’m plenty
happy to pay for my fish. Everybody would bring their collection of
movies, and in the early days we didn’t have that many so we
would watch the same movies over and over again. If you had launch
delays, you’d see the same movie four or five times. Later on,
folks got their collections of DVDs. Nowadays we have satellite TV,
so most of the time if the weather is good enough you have real entertainment.
After STS about 90 it was a four-day trip minimum because of budget
considerations. It used to be three days. We would go out day before,
do our thing, about a day’s worth of work, and come back. Our
arrival back here is when disassembly starts. Because of the time
of day of launch and the amount of time it took to tow back, a lot
of times we’d show up back here with boosters in tow on an off-shift.
Used to be priority was to get them apart, so they would plan on that
and they would have people here to do the disassembly whenever we
They, for budgetary reasons, decided that they had defined booster
performance well enough that they didn’t need to know as soon
as possible. So we would tow back at a rate such that we always showed
up here at the start of first shift. Instead of towing back in 24
hours or so, you would tow it back in 24 to 36 hours. You would set
the rate to show up at a good time for everybody else, so the later
flights we were out a minimum of four days if the launch went off
on time and everything worked right.
But for weather, when you’re offshore you don’t have any
choice. The weather is what the weather is. We were off of Jacksonville
waiting for a launch one time ten days. We went out, and the launch
was delayed a day. Then the launch came up, it was delayed two days.
We went like that, one day, two days for eight days before they finally
launched. Then we got the boosters and we actually ended up being
out ten days in bad weather. It’s just a bunch of people on
ship. We know each other; we’re just hanging out. Have you guys
been on the ships at all yet, had a ship’s tour?
De Leon: They’re big, but when you got 23 other people that you
know and there’s no gym—there’s a lounge, there’s
a mess deck. One of the biggest problems is that there’s a walk-in
fridge. If we’re not out too long there’s always food
in it. One of the biggest problems is eating too much. And there’s
nowhere to exercise. We had a couple folks trying jogging around the
ship, and it just doesn’t work well. There’s not much
distance you can go. With a ship in seas it’s almost hazardous
to do. One fellow brought aboard a rowing machine. People have tried
that. But again, with the seas it’s hard to do any motion that
requires you to do repetitive action lined up with a machine.
Do you guys have any traditions when you take off or when you come
De Leon: No, not really. It’s another day at work. Which is cool
when the weather is good.
Did you tell us how long you can dive for? I was looking through my
notes and I didn’t see that.
De Leon: It’s variable. It depends on how deep you go. The regulations
are that we can’t plan a decompression dive. If somebody were
to get stuck and you ended up staying so deep that you had a decompression
obligation, that just happened. But you can’t plan that. If
you look at the Navy dive tables, it changes. If you only go down
100 feet, I think you have 20 minutes.
Nowadays we don’t use the Navy dive tables, you use dive computers.
They go with you, and based on where you are right now and where you’ve
been on this dive it figures out how long you can stay right where
you are. Typically we’re at about 120 feet, which is about 15
That’s a short amount of time.
De Leon: Yes. And if you have problems, you call it and the next team
tries to get it done. They have the same amount of time, and hopefully
based on what you got accomplished they can finish. If not, you wait
till the computer says that you’re able to dive again.
What do you do after you put in the plug? Do you come back up?
De Leon: Yes.
Do you need to do other work?
De Leon: Well, we have other work to do, but as far as the recovery goes,
the last thing you do when you install the plug is put a hose to it,
an air hose. The booster sits in the water and you’re pumping
air into it. Water is coming out, and in about twenty minutes it starts
to get vertically unstable and it ends up laying down. During that
time, the divers are back on the ship. There’s one boat, a small
crew, that stays out to hook up the booster to the ship for the towback.
But everybody else, we’re back on deck and we’re covering
the parachutes that we already recovered. We’re putting away
our dive gear, we’re cleaning up the small boat, we’re
cleaning up the deck. We’re separating the parachute from the
frustum that we had pulled on deck earlier, just basically finishing
the day out.
Has there ever been a time when you’ve been on one ship, and
the other ship needs some assistance and you’ve gone over to
De Leon: Yes. There’s always a little bit of a rivalry there too.
It’s not that there’s a lot of push to it, but it’s
always fun to abuse the other ship for taking longer than you did.
And there have been occasions when things break. Early on we were
towing and one ship’s air compressor failed, so we actually
had to use the compressor from the other ship during the towback,
hooking onto the other ship’s booster.
We have had occasions—thankfully it was a false alarm, but we
had a diver that we thought had a decompression hit. Pretty much everything
stops. We have enough people on each ship to work the recompression
chamber for a diver, but the more people you have on hand, the better
off you are. We sent our ship’s EMTs [emergency medical technicians]
over there and a couple people to help operate the [hyperbaric] chamber.
Again, thankfully it ended up not being a real problem. Got him on
deck and started to get him out of his wet suit, and it turned out
he had just put on too much weight. It was too hard to breathe in
the wet suit. As soon as he opened up the wet suit it was like oh,
I guess that wasn’t a heart attack.
I just have one other question. Walking around here I’ve really
only seen men. Is this primarily an all-male crew?
De Leon: Yes. It was not intended, that’s not a deliberate thing.
In fact when we were working on validating Vandenberg we had a girl
diver out there. When that operation shut down, we had the two ships
that we were using here, and they had one large vessel that they were
going to use out at Vandenberg, Independence. Brought her here and
her crew came with it. They had not ever done a dive out there, but
she was on their dive team and the whole team was becoming booster
divers. They were going to come up here and dive with us, but it ended
up never happening because of Challenger.
At different times we have had a lady cook, not assigned to the ship,
not a regular, but a fill-in. On the Freedom we had a lady engineer,
and on Liberty we’ve had a lady engineer, but all of those ended
up being short-term. The one who was assistant engineer on the Freedom
just got tired of it. She went over to safety engineering.
The other lady engineer we had actually on the Liberty was here for
a while, but she ended up going over to the oil patch in the Gulf
of Mexico. Different work, better pay. We only ever had the one girl
diver. Actually the girl engineer on the Liberty passed the PT [physical
fitness] test. She was becoming a diver, and then just ran out of
time, ran out of missions. So yes, it has been predominantly all-male,
but never on purpose. We have taken female observers and had different
lady ship crew, but just worked out that way.
Well, thank you for your time and for all the help.
following comment was added by Mr. De Leon after the interview.
One last comment – I would like to express my feeling of
what we, as a people, should be doing in space.
Using the European discovery of the New World as an analog; Columbus
(or Vespucci or Eriksson) “discovered” the New World,
and following vessels could still set foot where Europeans had never
been. They looked around, claimed the land for their country, and
went home. They didn’t stay long enough to get an understanding
of what they didn’t know about these new places they had visited.
Even the thousandth ship to the New World carried individuals aboard
that would travel to places and see things no European knew existed.
Even establishing outposts were just steps in becoming intimate with
a small part of the New World around their doorstep. History shows
that they missed a lot. It would take many years of living in this
new place to understand it in its own context instead of just as an
extension of the Old World.
That time in history is analogous to where we are now. We’ve
had many important “Firsts” but those were explorations.
We have just established an outpost but that’s only a step toward
living away from Earth. Our robot eyes give us a picture of what is
beyond our reach, but it cannot replace the experience of living there.
Someday, we will have descendants living full time away from Earth.
It falls to us to make the advances and learn the things they will
have to know to get them there. That is worthy and exciting and we
should be dedicating effort to exploration, but we need to be mindful
that settlement is important too. Our outpost in space needs to be
a bridge, not end point of our effort. Exploration is exciting and
important. And extending humanity’s presence in space is how
we make it possible for our descendants to be able to reach even farther.